“There is nothing so stable as change.”—Bob Dylan
Growing up, I remember a house that stood out from all the others in our neighborhood. All around us were rows upon rows of boilerplate, square homes, shingled in varying neutral shades, all with a similar wide front porch, brown front door, narrow front yard and some form of a brick chimney.
But this house was different. It had the same asbestos shingles as the others, but they were bathed in a sunny shade of buttercup yellow. A gabled roof was perched atop a quaint entrance with a freshly painted white front door. The porch was not the standard issue front-facing variety, but screened in, and thoughtfully set off to the side, under a grove of shade trees. You could see that there was sturdy white ceiling fan turning lazily, offering gentle assistance to whatever breeze was already there, and the puffy cushions on the patio furniture looked positively nap-worthy. The corner lot was meticulously manicured; a stark contrast to the surrounding lawns in this working-class neighborhood where yard maintenance was a low priority for the begrudging homeowners and renters. The house was an example of above-and-beyond smack in the middle of a lot of just-getting-by.
Every Autumn, a tall maple tree on the street corner of the yard would burst into a beautiful blaze of gold that would literally stop traffic as onlookers slowed down to admire it. It was one of those trees that most people would think was more trouble than it was worth. The glorious display would last no more than a week, at which time every single leaf would make the ultimate sacrifice and careen off the tree and onto the lawn to make a thick golden blanket beneath the empty branches. Unlike the other lawns in the neighborhood, whose leaves would remain until they were brown and crumbly and half-blown away, these gilded leaves would be scooped up within hours of when they reached the ground, stuffed into lawn bags that looked like gifts, and lined up orderly along the street, waiting for the City to come and pick them up.
One day I asked my mother who lived in the golden cottage. She replied, “Oh, that’s where the Buchanans live.”
Buchanan. I knew that name. But it couldn’t possibly be the same Buchanan that I was thinking of. The Buchanan I was thinking of was Mrs. Buchanan, the meanest substitute teacher in all of Greer, SC. Maybe even all of Greenville County. And while it would have been hard to prove, I would have bet my whole piggy bank that she was the crankiest, toughest, and downright saltiest sub in all of the great state of South Carolina. Everyone agreed. Kids who couldn’t see eye to eye on anything would unite in synchronized groans when Mrs. Buchanan entered the classroom. In general, substitute teachers were welcome, sometimes even cause for celebration. Maybe because of their ignorance of classroom rules, or their fondness for showing movies instead of following lesson plans, or just because having a substitute was a departure from the ordinary humdrum of school days. None of this applied when Mrs. Buchanan was substituting. It was as if she wanted to be tougher than the teacher for whom she was substituting. She wasn’t about to phone anything in. She doled out plenty of schoolwork and even assigned homework for the evening. She was there to teach, and she expected you to learn; no, master the material she presented. She wouldn’t take any lip, as we said in those days, and in the rare instance that a student dared to buck her authority, it was straight to the principal’s office.
Everything about Mrs. Buchanan was no-nonsense. Her silvery blond hair was coiffed into a perfectly wispy helmet, likely the result of a weekly wash and set. If there was a threat of rain, she would proudly don a clear plastic rain bonnet to protect her investment as she walked through the parking lot to her spotless, waxed gold Buick. She wore small reading glasses that she kept on a golden chain hanging around her neck. When not needed for reading, those glasses rested on her formidable bosoms, unmovable in their WWII-era underpinnings, meant to withstand a bombing with nary a jiggle. Smart, neutral sweater sets paired with polyester blend pants and sensible flats provided her with a uniform that was both comfortable and the height of appropriateness. She was there to do a job. Not to make friends, or to waste time, or to collect a paycheck for doing the bare minimum, and, heavens above, not to merely babysit.
“Class, today you will have a substitute teacher, Mrs. Buchanan.”
All together now: “UUUUGGGHHHHHH.”
So, of course, this house must belong to another set of Buchanans. A cousin, perhaps? There was just no way that that Mrs. Buchanan could live in this lovely house full of goodness and light. It was like seeing the Wicked Witch of the West wearing Glinda the Good Witch’s dress. It was all wrong.
My mother was still talking. “Oh, you know them. Mrs. Buchanan. She used to be a school teacher when I was your age. I think someone at the church told me she’s a substitute now. Couldn’t stand being retired…”
Nooooooooooooooooooo. How could this be??? Mrs. Buchanan (a.ka. Mrs. ButtCannon; kids can be so clever in their mean-ness) was the force behind this lovely home of sunshine and buttercups? You’re telling me that the woman who used wooden rulers to paddle little hands came home to relax with a tall glass of sweet iced tea on that breezy screened porch? The same stoic lady I saw stand like a stalwart captain behind my teacher’s desk by day also stood gazing out the window with the delicate white curtains patterned with sweet little yellow flowers washing dishes by night?
As a child, I could not possibly reconcile the two. So, I blocked this knowledge out of my brain. I didn’t tell any of my friends that I knew where she lived. I stopped looking at the house when we passed it in the car. I don’t know why, but it felt like some sort of betrayal. My imagined story for this place had been shattered by cold, hard truth.
As an adult, however, it makes complete sense. The perfect home doesn’t just happen. You either have a full staff at your disposal, or you have to be a no-nonsense battleax to stay on top of the never-ending tasks. You have to have a Mr. Buchanan who will take orders. And you have to be willing to work. HARD.
Mrs. Buchanan, who was old even when my mother was young, has long since passed away. I think I was in college when I heard the news, and it made me sad. Meanie or not, she made an indelible mark on my childhood, and I think I always knew that deep down she had a soft heart. She showed her caring through discipline, not coddling. And there was always the case of that lovely home. A beautiful and welcoming space can only come from a beautiful and welcoming soul. She might have hidden it from us crass kids, but to those she kept close, she was surely a loving person.
Homes carry the character of those who inhabit them, and once Mrs. Buchanan left us, the home began to pass away, too. I see it often when I go to visit my mother, and I’m usually disappointed to see how it has deteriorated. The once cheerful yellow has taken on a very tired, almost sickly hue, and all the bright white trim paint is peeling and flaking away. The lawn is full of weeds and almost always in need of a trim. I can sometimes see people relaxing on the screened porch, but I also see that the ceiling fan blades are wilted from humidity, and the screen is torn and stretched out in places. Someone must have decided that the traffic-stopping maple was indeed too much trouble; all that remains of it is a ground-level stump.
I know that Heaven is not a place with disdain or annoyance, so I can’t imagine Mrs. Buchanan as I’d like to: an angel glaring over the top of her reading glasses at these ingrates who have run her haven into the unkempt ground. Instead, maybe she looks down with love on those that are leisurely enjoying the simple pleasure of sitting on that shaded, screened porch without the hours and backbreaking toil of the upkeep. Maybe.
I don’t like change. I never have and, unless something changes, I never will. But, change we must, and if Mrs. Buchanan can accept change, then I guess so can I.